His name is written into the lore of piracy - and rum. Now a salvage team's coup is bringing the details to the surface. By Guy Adams
Someone certainly wasn't paying attention, and - who knows? - maybe the look-out boys had been hitting the rum on a fateful night in 1671 when the good ship Satisfaction hit a reef off the coast of Panama, sinking with the loss of its entire crew.
The flagship of Admiral Sir Henry Morgan's fleet, which was travelling to the mouth of the Chagres River to capture the Castillo de San Lorenzo from the Spanish, was one of five vessels that disappeared in choppy seas. It sank to the ocean floor, where it lay for the next 340 years being slowly covered by sand and mud.
By the time a team of divers and archaeologists led by Texas State University chanced upon the wreck earlier this year, just two inches of Satisfaction's hull were still visible. After months of digging, they uncovered roughly 50 feet of her starboard side, along with several wooden chests, encrusted with coral.
The find was announced this week by Frederick "Fritz" Hanselmann, the leader of the research team, who said it had been like chancing upon a "needle in a haystack". Mr Hanselmann hopes the Satisfaction will help to shed light on an inglorious chapter in British adventurism. In March, Mr Hanselmann's team unearthed six cannon from Morgan's fleet near the mouth of the Panama Canal. But the team is yet to discover treasure.
"For us, the real treasure is the shipwrecks themselves, which can give us the ability to accurately tell the story of a legendary historical figure like Captain Henry Morgan," Mr Hanselmann said. "Discoveries of this nature allow us to study these artefacts and teach others what life was like for these famous privateers more than 300 years ago."
Morgan, a mercenary and (some would say) pirate from Monmouthshire, in South Wales, was employed by the Crown to protect trade routes from the Caribbean. After finding that an advance party of his own men had already captured the Castillo de San Lorenzo, he continued up the Chagres towards Panama City, which he promptly destroyed.
That attack violated a peace treaty between England and Spain, meaning that Morgan was arrested. He successfully pleaded ignorance of the treaty, was acquitted and then knighted by Charles II, and subsequently went to Jamaica, where he became lieutenant governor.
Morgan, who died in 1688, remains a legendary figure thanks in part to the brand of cheap rum named after him. And there is at least a whiff of a PR stunt about the fact that Mr Hanselmann's latest expedition was part-funded by that drinks company, which issued a press release yesterday describing the sponsorship deal as "a natural fit".
The corporatisation of the salvage industry is nothing new, though. In recent years, there has been a huge rise in the number of shipwrecks being unearthed by privately funded marine archaeologists, using cutting-edge undersea exploration technology, such as sonar, magnetometers, and remotely operated submersible robots. …